- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

In the world of two-door coupes, the Mitsubishi Eclipse GT is a bit like the Lone Ranger, falling in between more sedate coupes such as the Toyota Solara and Honda Accord, and more robust drivers such as Nissan’s 350Z. Totally redesigned for 2006, it offers better interior space than the car it replaces, a more vigorous V-6 and two new transmissions. Fun to drive? You bet. And with a base price of $24,294, it has somewhat of a value story to tell as well.

As the fourth generation of a line introduced in 1990, the 2006 model Eclipse is the most sophisticated so far. Quick, nimble and comfortable, it isn’t too harsh for long touring trips across country, yet is sporty enough to attract wannabe boy racers unable or unwilling to pony up 30 large for a 350Z. It loses a few points for its front-wheel-drive configuration, but handles remarkably well for a front driver. The exterior styling is a little more rounded than the previous generation, but still is a little more rounded than the previous generation, but stil

has plenty of personality. While it probably won’t turn many heads, its looks won’t get stale either.

A lesser four-cylinder GS version is also available. Its 162 horsepower translates into adequate transportation, but not ear-splitting grins. It costs $4,300 less than the GT and delivers better fuel economy, but just doesn’t have the GT’s pizzazz.

If the GT is prime rib, the GS is flank steak.

Virtually every piece of any consequence is new. Heading the list of new parts is the 3.8-liter V-6 replacing the old 3.0-liter V-6. Actually the new V-6 is only new to the Eclipse. It is borrowed from the Galant. Its 263 horsepower is 53 more than the previous engine. Torque is also up 55 foot-pounds to 260. The standard GT tranny is a slippery six-speed manual.

Opting for the five-speed driver-shiftable automatic bloats the bottom line by $1,100. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the manual-equipped GT at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the open road.

Mileage is improved by one mile per gallon with the automatic.

The GT gathers itself and hops off the line with gusto. Acceleration is smooth and determined. Delivering a fair amount of feedback, the shifter feels solid and precise. Getting in sync with this spirited little coupe is no problem for the driver. It is easy to tame and quite predictable with a little experience behind its wheel.

The Eclipse is a bit nose heavy, and taking a bend in the road on the hot side produces some understeer, but this is a common symptom of front-wheel drive. Cornering is neutral and the Eclipse always feels well planted.

Four-wheel disc brakes supervised by an antilock system are standard and include traction control. Regrettably a stability-control system isn’t available even as an option. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard, but 18-inch ones are available through the $3,270 Premium Sport Package option.

Billed as a four-passenger coupe, the Eclipse is best suited for two. No surprise in this segment, rear-seat room is minimal and a tad difficult to access. Anyone over the age of 16 will require some limbering up before attempting to wriggle back there. However, lifting the rear hatch reveals a generous amount of storage space. With roughly 2 extra inches added to the new Eclipse’s width, shoulder and hip room are increased.

If corner cutting was attempted, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence inside the Eclipse’s cabin. Sure, there are plenty of plastic surfaces; but so much care has been taken in the styling, they’re barely noticeable. A two-pod design, the front seat areas are snug, but not confined. The front bucket seats hug their occupants, providing gobs of support. Each major gauge is its own pod under a larger cowl directly in front of the driver. Blue backlighting provides illumination at night.

Neatly integrated into the smooth dashboard is the control panel for the audio system. Three large knobs operating the ventilation system are arranged in a horizontal row in the center stack below the stereo controls. Flowing without interruption, the center stack becomes the center console. Overall, the symmetry and attention to detail in this Eclipse are head and shoulders above the previous generation.

Both Eclipse versions are equipped with side-impact and side curtain air bags. In addition to power windows and door locks, GT standard features include cruise control, compass, outside temperature gauge, air conditioning and remote keyless entry. Unfortunately most highly prized options aren’t offered as stand-alone additions, but are included in one of two available option packages. In addition to 18-inch wheels, the Premium Sport Package features a power sunroof, alloy pedals, power driver’s seat, auto climate control and leather seating. It also replaces the stock audio system with a kicking Rockford Fosgate nine-speaker audio system with subwoofer and six-disc in-dash CD changer.

The Eclipse GT probably doesn’t receive the respect it deserves. Conservative buyers flock to the Accord and Solara coupes, while enthusiasts tend to gravitate to the Z and Acura RSX. That’s a pity because the Eclipse GT is a contender.

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